By Adam Reilly
Nov. 14, 2011
NORWOOD — A century ago, Norwood was flooded with immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. They found jobs, cheap housing and good schools — a modest microcosm of the American Dream.
Selectman Helen Abdallah Donohue's ancestors were part of that wave. Their success left her with an almost evangelical faith in Norwood's character.
"We are a perfect socioeconomic blend," she said. "It's a wonderful, safe and happy place to live."
Abdallah Donohue insisted that the same opportunities her ancestors found are still available today.
“We’re not a bedroom community, we’re not a snotty community. We are a working person’s community,” she said. “If you work, you can get ahead.”
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The Habr family: Drawing patrons from all over
Just off Norwood’s quaint town common, the Habr family is proving her point. Originally from Lebanon, the Habrs opened Cedar Market in August 1999. Now, 12 years later, Richard Habr said business is booming, and not just among Norwood’s sizable Middle Eastern community.
“We have people traveling from New Hampshire,” Habr said. “We have people come all the way from Rhode Island. And we have a guy who comes in from Connecticut probably twice a month and gets for families there. So we’ve settled ourselves here and we’ve made a name for ourselves.”
Shoppers come for imports they can’t get anywhere else, from hookahs to Lebanese beer, and for Lebanese delicacies made from scratch.
“The meat kibbeh’s made with cracked wheat and meat on the outside; they stuff it inside with ground beef and onions and spices,” Habr said, explaining one of Cedar Market’s staples. “The spinach one has pumpkin and cracked wheat.”
Paul Femino: Trying to keep his head above water
But Norwood as a whole isn’t faring as well. The Auto Mile is still there, but Norwood’s industrial base is gone, and downtown is dotted with empty storefronts. Paul Femino owns Café Abbondanza, an Italian restaurant on Washington Street. He said he’s struggling just to stay afloat.
“I worked 32 days in a row before I had a Sunday off,” Femino said. “I don’t have a problem working. But sometimes, you know, you work and work and work — now I work twice as hard as I did before, and I’m making half the money.”
Tommy Concannon: Cutting back
Even Norwood’s success stories are feeling the pinch of late. Tommy Concannon bought an empty garage 39 years ago and turned it into a function hall, Concannon’s Village, that became a magnet for the local Irish community. Now the Irish dances that packed the place on weekends are gone and the wedding business isn’t what it used to be.
“The destination wedding has become very popular. They're going to Bermuda or different parts of Mexico and everything else," Concannon said. "Even locally [they're having] weddings on the beach, things like that. So my wedding business has dropped off.”
Concannon closed his adjoining pub this fall after his regular customers stopped showing up.
“They just don’t have it anymore to spend,” he said. “I think a lot of the ones that did patronize me quite regularly — or very regularly, some of them — were having two and three beers. And then I suspect they maybe went to the package store and got a six-pack and went home and sat in the recliner.”
Still, Concannon was certain that the road he traveled, from the son of hardworking immigrants to a pillar of Norwood’s business community, remained open to others.
“Oh, definitely, if you have the right idea,” he said. “You have to have a lot of drive and willpower.”
In other words, you have to be a bit like the Habr family.
“You have to believe in something to have it actually happen. And this is what we rely on,” said Richard Habr. “This is the country — the land of opportunity.”
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